Before you take a baseball bat to your WiFi router, there are a few apps which might help bring your home wireless network back from the dead.
WiFi troubleshooting is a bit of a dark art because there are so many things that can cause your wireless network to occasionally crap out and leave you hanging. Before you upgrade your home network, there are a few easy-to-use tools which let you see exactly what’s happening as all those WiFi waves bounce around your home.
Scan the area
Your first stop should be a WiFi analyser app which gives you a real-time view of all the wireless networks in the vicinity. You’d be surprised how many nearby networks will pop up, even if you don’t tend to see many when using your smartphone.
You’ll find mobile WiFi analyser apps but when you’re troubleshooting wireless woes you’re better off using desktop software running on a Windows, Mac or Linux notebook. Notebooks tend to have more sensitive WiFi chips than smartphones, plus desktop WiFi analyser software tends to offer more advanced features.
These days I use WiFi Explorer on my Mac to troubleshoot home WiFi issues, while I was a fan of NetStumbler on Windows back in the wardriving days.
While the advanced options can be a little daunting, straight away WiFi analyser tools like WiFi Explorer reveal the name, strength and channel of all the nearby 2.4GHz and 5GHz wireless networks. You can also see the channel width and maximum throughput rate.
If you’re running multiple wireless hotspots with multiple bands they’ll all be visible and you can tell them apart by their unique MAC address. Keep in mind that if you live in a multi-story house then you might see different neighbourhood networks when you’re upstairs.
If you can see that your WiFi network is sharing the same channel as other strong networks nearby then that’s the first thing to change by dipping into the WiFi settings on your router. It’s worth checking out the advanced tools, as some WiFi routers can automatically scan for the best available channel and even look for other forms of interference. You might also find “robust” options which trade network speed for reliability.
Keep in mind that other wireless gear can cripple your WiFi network, such as a Chromecast Audio adaptor or a cordless phone base station placed too close to your WiFi router (I speak from experience here). Microwave ovens can also play havoc with 2.4GHz networks. Even non-wireless electrical gear can cause trouble, so try unplugging things in a game of trial and error to see what helps.
Draw a map
At this point you can start moving around your home to check your WiFi signal strength. Moving your router up high can help, as well as thinking about solid objects in the house. Don’t just look at the signal strength, also consider the signal to noise ratio to see whether the signal quality is suffering.
Rather than wandering around taking notes, this is when WiFi mapping tools can really help. They let you draw a rough layout of your house and record the signal strength in each room to create a coverage map and highlight blackspots. You’ll find mobile mapping apps like Telstra’s Wi-Fi Maximiser, but once again it might be worth stepping up to desktop tools like NetSpot for Windows and Mac which lets you perform a WiFi site survey.
Remember that 5GHz WiFi networks offer faster speeds and are less susceptible to interference, but 2.4GHz networks reach further and do a better job of punching through walls. It’s worth mapping both to see exactly where the problems lie.
For a long time I ran separate 2.4 and 5GHz home networks to create a fast-lane for my devices, but I’ve been won over by the benefits of “bandsteering”, which is supported by many new WiFi routers. It requires you to use the same name and password for your 2.4 and 5GHz networks, so your WiFi router can automatically switch devices between bands depending on where you are in the house.
WiFi analyser tools make it easy to see bandsteering in action. When you’re close to your WiFi router you’ll be on your network’s fast 5GHz band, but when you’re at the far end of the house you’ll automatically move across to 2.4GHz – which actually delivers better performance than 5GHz when you’re so far from the router.
Also look for “beamforming”, which bends your WiFi network to reach devices which are struggling to get a decent signal – you’ll really see the difference in a multi-story house.
There’s no magic bullet when it comes to dealing with your wireless woes, but WiFi analyser and mapping tools can certainly give you a clearer picture of what’s happening around your home. How do you troubleshoot WiFi headaches?